Overrated Bourbon (and Whiskey) - What To Drink Instead

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Drink What You Like, But Be Aware of Overrated Whiskey

If you couldn’t tell already, whiskey, especially bourbon, has become extremely popular. As a result though, the complex interaction between distilleries, retailers, the internet, and consumers has lead to some strange things. One of those things is overrated whiskey, often overrated bourbon. 

Here’s my definition of overrated whiskey: a whiskey, often sought-after, valued, and/or frequently discussed, that scent and/or taste-wise does not justify the popularity, demand, and/or price (in my opinion of course).

Because overrated whiskey / overrated bourbon is a bit controversial and has a lot of hot takes, let me mention a few things before we get started.

First off, I want to adore every single whiskey that I review and for it to be totally worth the money. That is unfortunately not the case, and it also means that I’m limited to what I have reviewed. So no, you’re not going to find often-discussed overrated bourbons such as Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.

Second, pay and enjoy whatever you want because overrated whiskey / overrated bourbon is subjective. All I can do is write about what I think are overrated whiskeys (often overrated bourbons because that’s what I review the most) based on my experience.

And last but not least, you’re always welcome to disagree because these are all my opinion. Honestly, if price among other things wasn’t a factor, I’d gladly drink most of the whiskeys listed below too.

This list does not specifically cover the most overrated whiskeys / overrated bourbons out there, although you will find some of those here. And I don’t want to go on a Buffalo Trace rampage either. I want to highlight certain ones, some of which are not always thought of as overrated, because I want to offer a slightly different view on the age-old hot take.

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Let's Get To Overrated Whiskey / Overrated Bourbon

Van Winkle 12 Year

My Rating: Mid Shelf+
MSRP: $80
Secondary: It’s so high and constantly changing that I have no idea anymore
Overrated Bourbon Level: Lol…just lol

The Van Winkle line of bourbons and one rye are out of this universe overrated, but Van Winkle 12 Year may be the most overrated bourbon of them all. Prices alone are incomprehensible for a good and very drinkable bourbon that never once made me think “wow is special”. Let me reiterate that this is “Mid Shelf+” bourbon.

It’s definitely has a unique profile with pleasant, gentle, fruity, and floral honey, green grape, orange, apple, and pear with moderate density. It just never comes off as that fragrant, flavorful, or impressive, even disregading the price and hype. It lacked the density, layers, and wow factor to be exceptional.
While the ABV could be a factor, low ABV does not have to also mean low on character. Yamazaki 18, Widow Jane 12 year single barrel, Blantons from the 90s, and Old Forester from the 80s offer loads of density and character that far outperform their abv. Van Winkle 12 Year is just a bit too watered down, possibly from barrel selection and blending.

What to drink instead: There aren’t many other fruity wheated bourbons, so this is tough. Most wheated bourbons they tend to be have more orange, clove, and cinnamon due to the wheat and lack of rye. Some Makers Mark Private Selects are a bit more fruit forward, but they often have a different earthy and baked-bread forwardness. That honestly may be the best alternative, but it admittedly is not that close.

Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon

My Rating: Mid Shelf+
MSRP: $140-150
Secondary: $220-250?
Overrated Bourbon Level: If the 10 year rye is so good, how the hell did they pick this?

This one hurts because the 10 year rye is incredible (Top Shelf+) and surprisingly exceeded the hype and my expectations. Unfortunately, the 10 year single barrel bourbon doesn’t remotely reach the same level and maybe it was unfair to expect the same level of greatness.

While it has a promising caramel, oak, tobacco, and chocolate backbone that offers a lot of maturity, this particular single barrel doesn’t have the viscosity, layers, or pop to be excellent like the 10 year rye. It started, but never followed through, making it painfully overrated bourbon.

It could be one in the not as good barrels, but you can’t have duds at that price. Maybe subsequent years were better, but I can’t say from experience.

What to drink instead: No Michters? No problem because Widow Jane 12 Year Single Barrel, Widow Jane 13 Year single barrel, Remus Repeal Series 1-X (released every year now), and Knob Creek 12 year offer a similar dark, oaky, tobacco-y, and spicy experience but with more fullness, fruitiness, and overall deliciousness. 

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon

My Rating: Bottom Shelf
MSRP: $40-50

Secondary: $70?
Overrated Bourbon Level: Foul and misleading

Henry McKenna 10 year won a bunch of awards in 2017 and 2018, and then hype train sped off. Apart from the fact that I think these awards are nonsense, since this is a single barrel bourbon, Heaven Hill definitely provided an exceptional barrel that they carefully handpicked themselves, not some arbitrary one they just pulled off the shelf that you and I might buy. 

These awards give people the impression that it’s special and amazing, but it’s really not. While I have had some good ones before from different barrels, I was unfortunate enough to buy and review a bottle that was plain terrible. It was completely dominated by alcohol, and even after that everything was thin sweetness, oak, and some faint essence of rye. No amount of air and “opening it up” was going to fix it.

Someone at Heaven Hill must have said, “I don’t care how this drinks because some sucker will still buy it”, because it’s clear that Heaven Hill does not quality check these single barrels before bottling them. As a result, they vary wildly from awful garbage to pretty good. People think that they’ve found a gem, but this is overrated bourbon because it’s just too variable to trust that you’ll get a good experience, even at the new $50ish MSRP. 

Even I’m too scared to buy another one because it’s just too much of a gamble for me…although I still consider it from time to time.

What to drink instead: The quick and easy answer is an Elijah Craig Barrel Pick (e.g., 12 year single barrel), if you can find one of course. Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon I guess is a decent option because it’s also a single barrel Heaven Hill bourbon, but that point I always recommend Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon over it.

Yamazaki 18 Year

My Rating: Top Shelf
MSRP: $300

Secondary: $800+
Overrated Bourbon Level: Makes buying expensive scotch look normal

Let me make this clear – Yamazaki 18 is a fantastic Japanese Whiskey with impressively rich, layered, and complex dark fruits followed by awesome floral, fruity, and slightly spicy traits. It’s the highest rated whiskey on this entire list. I’d drink this everyday if I could. 

The problem, and what makes it an overrated whiskey, to no surprise is the insane price and how many idolize it as a unicorn. It’s excellent, but it’s not even $300 MSRP good let alone one of the best single malt whiskeys I’ve ever had, largely in part because the ABV thins-out the great whiskey. And yeah…part of it is the even more crazy inflation for age-stated Japanese whiskey.
It’s so insane that stores in Japan are offering to buy them from people for nearly $1000. That’s not the selling price, that’s the price they’re willing to pay to buy one from you.
At this point, it’s primarily a status symbol, but then again stuff like that has irrational demand and pricing. For the rest of us, there’s a whole world of 18+ year old sherry-aged Scotch that is comparable if not better.

What to drink instead: I don’t drink much Japanese whiskey, but Nikka From The Barrel comes to mind as a great alternative. It may not be considered Japanese whiskey anymore (includes Scotch in the blend), but it also offers a lot of dark fruit richness, mature oak and spice, and a little smoke. It’s an amazing buy for around $70. Sherry matured Ben Nevis or Glendronach is great too.

New Riff Single Barrel Bourbon (ONLY SOME PICKS!)

My Rating: Mid Shelf+
MSRP: $50-60

Secondary: As high as $150 for some picks
Overrated Bourbon Level: Huh, why?

Oh boy I’m going to get a lot of heat for this one because you’re definitely going to think that I’m bat shit crazy. If you’re willing, hear me out first. I must reiterate that New Riff Single Barrel Bourbon itself is not overrated. It’s some of the store / group picks that are because of the occasional mind-numbing $90-150 that people are willing to pay on secondary. At that point, I really starting thinking that some picks have become overrated bourbon.

The single barrel I reviewed (picked by the distillery) was very good with rich caramel, orange, oak, and a lot of earthy rosemary, pumpernickel, and caraway seed. The drawback was that it all came in one shot, and didn’t evolve and show off more layers over time. It was still young but already had a lot of character and promise. There is potential for “Top Shelf” status, and I need to further explore these single barrels.

Using what I know as a baseline, I can’t image that these 4 year old single barrel bourbons get so much better that they could justify $100+. Maybe in a few years when they’re 6-7 years old.

New Riff has done nothing wrong here. They make some damn good 4 year old bourbon, and it will probably crush Old Forester Barrel Proof with 5+ year old releases. It’s the overblown hype and oddly increasing prices for some picks that makes it overrated.

What to drink instead: Keep drinking New Riff because there are many normally priced single barrels and barrel picks for around $50-60. Add Woodinville Barrel Proof to the mix because they have great cask strength bourbon too.

My Rating: Mid Shelf+
MSRP: $40-50

Secondary: $250+
Overrated Bourbon Level: Not even better than Blanton’s

People love to hate on Blanton’s, but Elmer T Lee is a far more overrated bourbon. It’s probably one of the most overrated bourbons out there today.  It doesn’t even have horse tops to collect (that’s sarcasm by the way).

Like Blanton’s, Elmer T Lee is a mashbill #2 single barrel bourbon, but it’s slightly lower proof (45% ABV) and supposedly older. I get why people like and I do too, with gentle, somewhat rich, and dare I say smooth honey, licorice, apple, berry, oak, and clove among other things, but it’s kind of thin, and not that mature or interesting.
As a result, it’s fine at MSRP but neither remarkable nor special. It probably was amazing years ago ago when Buffalo Trace wasn’t hauling ass to get as much of it out the door (Blanton’s from the 90s is awesome by the way), but the stuff now is overrated bourbon.
Comparing it to John J Bowman Single Barrel and an Eagle Rare Barrel Pick, Elmer T Lee lost both times and it wasn’t that close because both were noticeably more rich and complex, not to mention amping up everything Elmer T Lee had to offer.

What to drink instead:  I’ve already mentioned John J Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon, 8-10 years old, as a great Blanton’s Substitute. That also makes it a great Elmer T Lee one too. Even better, it’s $50-60 and not a limited release with lines out the door for it (yet).

My Rating: Mid Shelf+

MSRP: $80-90

Secondary: $110-150?

Overrated Bourbon Level: Some craft bourbons are just as good if not better

These single barrel picks had the benefit and misfortune of being the first cask strength Old Foresters in…pretty much ever. The hype train sped off. To be clear, the resulting bourbon was quite good, but it fell short of expectations and the competition. People rave about it, but I’m not one of those people.

The Potomac Wine and Spirits pick I reviewed had rich caramel and vanilla, caramelized banana, a lot of earthy rosemary and thyme (unexpected), roasted oak, oak spices, and a little fruit. That’s all great, but it lacked layers or nuance, meaning that everything came in one rush and didn’t evolve from there. It also had a noticeable youthful graininess that I often find in younger whiskey. If you’re wondering, I trust the pickers.
This bourbon is also 4 year olds (I’ve seen sample bottles and am aware of heat cycled warehouses). Age itself isn’t a big deal, but craft distilleries such as New Riff and Woodinville (with less older stock and existing infrastructure) are already charging the same / less for similar / older homemade bourbon that’s just as good, if not better. Old Forester is rushing what could be an excellent bourbon. They can to do better.
What to drink instead: Woodinville and New Riff also have 4-5 year old single barrel barrel proof bourbons that offer a similar dense caramel sweetness and earthiness. The Woodinville, or at least the one I reviewed, brings a lot more fruit and complexity as well, outperforming Old Forester. This is David beating Goliath.

MSRP: $100-120

Secondary: MSRP

My Rating: Mid Shelf+

Overrated Bourbon Level: Not remotely as good as other ~$100 finished bourbons

Finished bourbons are my favorite, so I wanted Angel’s Envy Private Selects to be great. With high hopes going into my review, I was then left not impressed. People rave about this too, but I’m not one of them.

Like many other whiskeys on this list, the Angel’s Envy Private Select I reviewed wasn’t bad at all. It had some dark fruit and dark oak from the port finish, apple, peach, a lot of herbal licorice and fennel, and cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg oak spices.
The main issue is that everything was generally surface level. The dark fruit and oak from the port finish were quite tame, so the finish felt rushed. The experience as a whole made me think that it wasn’t developed enough yet, and finishing wasn’t going to fix it the younger bourbon that didn’t have enough character on its own.
The second issue is the ~$100 MSRP, which is questionable. I get that finishing is expensive, but this needs way more barrel aging and finishing time to earn a $100 price tag. I want Angel’s Envy to do it right and succeed, but right now it pains me to say that the barrel select is an overrated bourbon.

What to drink instead: There are quite a few heavy hitters in the ~$100 finished bourbon category, and Angel’s Envy doesn’t come close. Redwood Empire Haystack Needle 12 Year Port Cask Finish, Joseph Magnus Bourbon, and One Eight Untitled 13 are all excellent finished MGP-sourced bourbons that provide a lot of dark fruit fullness, roasted oak and tobacco, and abundant fragrance and flavor.

MSRP: $40

Secondary: maybe $60

My Rating: Mid Shelf

Overrated Bourbon Level: Not better than Elijah Craig Small Batch and Evan Williams Bottled in Bond

If Heaven Hill 7 Year Bottled in Bond was supposed to be the better Evan Williams Bottled in bond, it was bound to be very good. I enjoyed it at first when I was casually drinking it, but was completely underwhelmed when I reviewed it. It was so oddly flat, grainy, and underdeveloped, and a huge letdown for me – a big Heaven Hill fan.

In a comparison with Elijah Craig Small Batch, Elijah Craig won in a landslide because it was by far the fuller, richer, and more complex bourbon, offering more caramel, vanilla, fruit and oak. Heaven Hill was more thin, dry, and grainy, smelling and tasting worse than Evan Williams Bottled on Bond. On top of that Elijah Craig is older (around 8 years vs 7), cheaper, and easier to find, so Heaven Hill 7 Year Bottled in Bond doesn’t add-up.

I know there’s chatter over it because of its regional distribution and association to the now discontinued 6 year bottled in bond that was under $20, but this could be mostly a cash grab. Heaven Hill 7 Year may be Heaven Hill’s most overrated bourbon.

What to get instead: In short, Elijah Craig Small Batch and Evan Williams Bottled in Bond are better, less expensive, and easier to find.

MSRP: $120-170 (the range is huge on this one)

Secondary: MSRP

My Rating: Mid Shelf

Overrated Whiskey Level: Just don’t

There’s a decent amount of chatter, especially because of the Sinatra name. When I got the chance to review this, I went in really wanting to love it, but even after multiple tries all I ever got was a one-dimensional and unimpressive experience. This is also one of the most overrated whiskeys / overrated bourbons out there today.

Sure the caramel, vanilla, banana, and oak were decent, and the flavors were extremely smooth and round, but nothing suggested that it was $120+ good. It lacked nearly all of the richness, complexity, and variety that great whiskey has, and not a single stand-out trait. I guess the box and association with Frank Sinatra are cool, but that’s about as good as it gets.
So please for the love of whiskey, don’t buy it. I’m not a Jack Daniels hater either, because Jack Daniel’s makes good whiskeys that offer more substance.
What to get instead: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select 47% ABV is an epic upgrade. The one I reviewed had far more character with more chocolate, caramel, vanilla, oak spices, and hints of fruit. It’s also around $40-50, a third the price, so you can stock up. You can also get the Barrel Proof at half the price.

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There's More To Come

This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, and I’m still adding to it. And ultimately, overrated whiskey / overrated bourbon depends on what you like and what you’re willing to spend / not spend. Thanks for reading!

Alex author

Meet the Author: Alex

I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese. There are no sponsors, no media companies, and no nonsense. Support The Whiskey Shelf by Buying Me A Shot.
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